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#AceHistoryDesk – Being an Elder means more than age to June Oscar. She’s joining her mother and grandmother before her — alongside hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders across the country — to hand their stories and language, culture and wisdom to the next generation.
One Plus One: The Elders premieres tonight, Thursday at 9:35pm on ABC TV and will be available on ABC iview and YouTube.
It’s a four-hour drive from Broome to reach the southernmost point of Bunuba Country in Western Australia.
Through the breathtaking jagged black rocks of the Ganimbiri (Oscar) range sits a boab tree.
Gouging rivets to make footholes in the tree trunk with her tomahawk, June Oscar’s grandmother would climb up to the top to draw the water out from a hole.
For the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, June Oscar, this Country is her home and her sense of identity.
“We know the names of these places, and we know which family groups have responsibility for these places,” June explains.
“That’s when the spirits of our ancestors are right there with us because they can hear their language being spoken.”
WARNING: This story features the names and images of deceased Aboriginal people, which have been used with the permission of their families.
This range, despite its beauty, also holds the scars from a time of resistance.
“If you were a white person, a white man, you were given full authority to shoot Aboriginal people,” June says, “These are the frontier wars that our people lived through.”
“The history of that from the Bunuba is maintained within the songs, the dances, within the stories that have continued on over generations.”
These are the stories her grandmother and mother shared with her, and now as the matriarch June has the responsibility to pass them on.
“Responsibility in carrying out the wishes of my mother, my grandmother, my people — and ensuring that their words are still listened to, that my young people now are supported to know their language and to understand Country.”The matriarchs: June Oscar’s aunty is on the left, and her grandma is on the right.(Courtesy of Curtin University Library)none
The voices of Elders have been a guiding hand for communities for tens of thousands of years — sharing their stories, languages and cultural practices that have been passed through generations.
We spoke to Elders around the country, some of whom like June are well known in their broader careers, to ask them: what does it mean to be an Elder?
Coming from different Nations across four states, they hold these things in common: they understand the responsibility and honour of being recognised as an Elder in their community, and they embrace their role as knowledge holders who link their community to the past while forging a path for future generations.
You have to win the title of Elder
In the Northern Territory, the Daly River snakes beside Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr Baumann’s community of Nauiyu, about a three-hour drive south from Darwin.
Nauiyu was a Catholic-run community, originally set up by missionaries back in the 1950s in the Daly River region.
The area is known for its barramundi and its crocodiles, which Miriam-Rose explains can walk through this community at night.
Taking the time to stop and really listen to the environment around them is part of what Miriam-Rose describes as dadirri — a form of deep listening and quiet still awareness.
“It helps your spirit to be fulfilled,” Miriam-Rose says.
“Sometimes when I say, you gotta slow down, let’s go and sit by the riverbank and watch the flow of the river and listen to the sounds of the bird or listen to the wind blowing through the leaves – some people cry, westerners, because they can’t see themselves slowing down.”
In 1975, Miriam-Rose was the first Aboriginal person to be a fully qualified teacher in the Northern Territory, and later became the principal at the St Francis Xavier school in her community.
In 2021, she was awarded Senior Australian of the Year.Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr Baumann when she was younger.(Supplied)noneMiriam-Rose Ungunmerr Baumann when she was a school principal.(Supplied)none
Beside a billabong, she encourages the children from the community school to taste one of the lilies that has been plucked out from the water — it tastes a bit like celery, she says.
Miriam-Rose has three birth dates, as a result of the missionaries, so she takes the youngest age at 72, but she has no plans to slow down — retirement is a “western notion”.
She will always be there for her community’s young people.Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr Baumann teaches the children from the community of Nauiyu about lilies.(ABC News)none
“To support them to keep going on … and then try and pull ’em back if they’re straying, being there and walking with them,” Miriam-Rose explains.
“Then you get accepted by your people in the community and they recognise you as an Elder – you win that title.”
It’s an honour to be an Elder
Fred Hooper has embraced his role as a Murrawarri Elder and says it’s an honour to be given that title by his mob.(ABC News)none
Rustling of the leaves from the river red gum picks up as Fred Hooper talks about his ancestors connecting to Country and mother earth.
“I think they’re saying to us, ‘welcome to our Country’,” Fred says as he looks at the large tree above that has been standing for centuries.
“It is important for us to tell stories, and I think the old people are saying that as well.”
The Murrawarri Elder says the river red gum stands as a symbol of renewal of life.
He explains that when the old people pass their spirits go to the sky camp, but a spirit also comes back to earth “returning on a falling star”.
“It then might hide behind a tree, then when the baby is born, the spirit jumps into the baby, giving its first breath and giving it its life,” he explains.
During the Welcome to Country, his aunties explain that Fred is a spokesperson for their community, the Murrawarri Nation on the border of New South Wales and Queensland.
Fred Hooper has had many jobs over the years, from cotton chipping, a navy submariner, public servant to business owner, but he is also known for his advocacy for First Nations peoples’ water rights.One of Fred Hooper’s many roles over the years includes being in the Navy.(Supplied)noneFred Hooper as a young man.(Supplied)none
At first the humble man wasn’t sure if he would be considered an Elder, despite being repeatedly described as one by his mob and online – but now he is embracing this stage of his life.
“It’s an honour to be in that category of an Elder,” Fred says.
“Elders are people who care about their Country and care about their people, but an Elder can always be a leader, so people that go out there into the community and go out into the world and fight for things.”
He says he must now “bow down” and embrace that role.
You can’t put the title of Elder or Uncle on yourself
Ian Hamm’s birth certificate reads Andrew James.
Adopted from a Melbourne hospital into a white family and raised about 260 kilometres away in Yarrawonga, he had very little knowledge of his Aboriginal identity growing up.
He was a stolen child, part of the Stolen Generations.
“The only exposure I had to Aboriginality was what was in the media and what other people said.”
At the age of 18, he found out that he had been raised just 60 kilometres away from his biological family who lived in Shepparton.
“Imagine yourself in a universe that’s pitch black and as the story rolls out, different stars or different things start to light up.
“I kept thinking, have I seen people in my family before? Have I seen my brothers and sisters? Did I pass them in the street and not know?”
The river red gum by the Murray River had always given him peace, but the intuitive feeling of place took on a new meaning.
“To find where you’re from and where you’re connected, particularly when you’re Aboriginal, that redefines actually who you are.”
Ian Hamm has spent decades trying to create change from within the public service, and ensure Stolen Children like him are recognised and remunerated.
So, what does being an Elder mean to Ian?
“Somebody who has made a significant contribution to the community in which they live, that their life has been driven by things beyond themselves, that they’ve sought to uplift not just themselves, but everybody else as well.”Ian Hamm says being an Elder is something you can’t put on yourself — the community puts it on you.(ABC News)none
At 58 years of age he’s not sure how to take it when people call him Uncle Ian, because he says it comes back to his early days of not knowing who he was.
“It’s not something you put on yourself like I’m an Elder now or I’m an Uncle.
“It’s how everybody else judges you. It’s others reflecting on the sum total of what you’ve done,” he explains.
“It’s just enough for me that people give me the time of day.”
- Reporting: Stephanie Boltje and Dan Bourchier
- Video and Photography: Adam Wyatt, Geoff Kemp, Andrew Seabourne, Abbey Haberecht, Jessica Hayes, and Kirstie Wellauer
- Digital production: Karen Tong and Leigh Tonkin
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